Much of human history is hidden beneath the waves: Some 3,000,000 ?shipwrecks may rest on the world’s seabeds. But archaeologists had ?to rely on professional divers for scraps of information about these sites ?until the 1960s, when George Bass began to apply rigorous excavation ?techniques to underwater wrecks. Over the next half century, Bass led ?groundbreaking studies of Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 B.C.) shipwrecks ?off the coast of Turkey, along with sites from many other periods. Along ?the way, he transformed underwater archaeology from an amateur’s ?pastime to a modern scientific discipline. Those achievements earned ?him a National Medal of Science in 2002. Now a professor emeritus at ?Texas A?&?M University, where he founded the Institute of Nautical ?Archaeology, Bass reflected on his storied career with DISCOVER ?senior editor (and passionate lover of archaeology) Eric A. Powell.
Why go underwater to study the ancient past, when research is so much easier on land? ?
Underwater artifacts are protected against the most destructive agent of all, which is us. People drop plates and break them. They drop glass bottles and break them. They burn marble columns for lime. They melt down bronze statues for church roofs. Also, there are certain things that are simply not going to be found on land, like raw materials, because they don’t remain raw for very long out of the water. The other reason to go underwater is that it’s the place to find evidence of ship hulls, which were as important to ancient cultures as architecture, pottery, anything. There’s always been a desire to transport goods or ideas as cheaply and in as great a quantity as possible. For much of human history, that meant building the best ship you could.
What can you learn from a ship hull?? ?
Since at least the Bronze Age, seafaring has been key to cultural progress. Ships are in some cases the most technologically advanced equipment a culture would develop—their space shuttles. So to really understand the ancients, you have to be able to understand how they approached the sea, and the only way to do that is to excavate shipwrecks. And those ships only sank once, so they can give you incredibly precise dates.
Have you always been drawn to ships and the sea?
I grew up in Annapolis, Maryland, where my father taught English at the Naval Academy. My brother and I made a diving helmet out of a tin square that we cut out and put glass in as a faceplate. We would have died if we had ever tried it. I was also inspired by a retired Australian army officer named Ben Carlin, who made an amphibious jeep that went all around the world. He put it together two doors down from us. I used to help him after I came home from school—you know, tightening nuts. He thought he’d make his fortune from it. He wrote a couple of books about that jeep, but he never did make his fortune.
Were you also interested in archaeology from the beginning? ?
?Not at first. When I was in high school, I fell in love with astronomy. Later I went to Johns Hopkins and started as an English major…